Thinking Through Loneliness and Details. (Somewhere over the Grand Canyon, 8:27am)
It is impossible for me to fly over the American west without thinking of Bernard DeVoto. In 1953, contemplating a trans-continental flight, he wrote, “an equally subtle melancholy lies along the margins of the heart, for all journeys are alone and, one remembers, all journeys are toward the West. Outside the window is the vast loneliness of sky and earth.” 35 years later, JB Jackson would remark that “the aerial view reinforced our modern tendency to analyze and reduce phenomena to their smallest components. The more extensive the view, the more we concentrate on details, and, for the modern Americans, especially those involved in environmental studies, the landscape as composition has almost ceased to exist. Fragments of the whole, studies in micro-ecosystems, isolated structures and spaces of little significance–are all that matters.” The clouds this morning make it impossible to interrogate the landscape in any real way, but they obscure any details on the ground offering instead a transient topography of water.
Emigration Creek begins its run through campus nearly 35,000 feet below me and far to the northwest as it spills out of a culvert. A few trout have been seen in the pool there. The water flows under a bridge, past the amphitheater and the turf soccer field before continuing through the neighborhoods to the Jordan River. The water in the creek will never join the waters of the Colorado River beneath me. They will join the waters of the Bear River, the Weber River, and salty ghosts of water from centuries ago that have gathered in the Great Salt Lake. The watershed is contained. Part of the West, yet distinct from it. The clouds beneath me seem solid, almost hard. Part of the air, yet distinct from it. These are the details, the insignificant spaces, the connections between us, the borders between the clouds and the clear sky, the borders between watersheds. Containing, dividing, connecting.
About Borders. (Between Arizona and New Mexico 10:30 am)
I’m flying east and last night I watched John Ford’s “Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Early in the film Jimmy Stewarts character intones (as only Jimmy Stewart can) “I followed Horace Greeley’s advice, ‘Go west young man. Go west and grow up with the country.'” ((Later in the film the newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody somewhat brilliantly (and drunkenly) inverts the phrase to “As for you old man, go East and grow young with the country!”)) And so he begins the story of a young idealistic lawyer settling in the West, before the railroad changed the town. It is, in part, the story of democracy, the story of development, the story of change. But it is also the story of two borders, the border between the violent West and the one defined by democratic institutions, schoolhouses, and churches. It’s the story between the border between legend and fact (“This is the West, Sir,” the latter day newspaperman concludes as he burns his notes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”). And it is the story of the border formed by the Picketwire River, with the townsfolk and farmers on one side and the ranchers and outlaws int he other. The river divides and connects two worlds, two visions of the future. Emigration creek divides the campus, with residential halls on one side and academic buildings on the other, though there are exceptions to this division. The bridge crosses this world. The bridge is scary. On the campus and in the film, the River becomes the defining line of connection between two worlds. It is impossible to avoid the most beautiful cliche, a river, or a creek, runs through it.
Small Frontiers and Big (Probably over Texas 12:20pm)
It must be Texas below me. The clouds here are faint, translucent, layered. We must be somewhere just north of Houston. I imagine big ranches and loneliness on the ground below me. I imagine creeks no bigger than emigration providing water and hope to lonely dry landscapes I imagine taciturn people ready to let lose at a provocation or in celebration. Other than Alaska and Hawaii, Texas is the only state West of the Mississippi that I haven’t properly visited ((layovers in the Houston airport don’t count)), so I am left to imagine. I have a personal working definition of the frontier. For me, the frontier is a far away horizon. This is how I imagine Texas. I am flying east to witness the launch of a satellite that will hurtle to Mars and orbit the red planet. Another far away horizon. My imagination may be the only thing connecting Emigration Creek to the Martian horizon, but I believe it to be enough.
Placelessness (Further east. 1:00 pm)
The view from the window lacks and distinguishing features. We have entered a cloud bank. High thin clouds that don’t block the sun but surround us in white. We are nowhere. I cannot think, but somehow believe that a cup of coffee will ground me. Jenny Price writes that “we have to stop saving the planet and start inhabiting it. We have to start using and altering and transforming and preserving it, with each other, sustainably and equitably, for the health of people, communities, and ecosystems.” But there is nothing in this bright white to inhabit. For that one needs details. One needs the ridgelines, the ripples, the bridges. The practice of inhabiting depends upon the specifics of place; the collapsing concrete on the bank beneath the parking lot, the buried pipes, and the almost wild banks of the creek. Details matter The smell of the coffee ties me to the cold mornings on the bank of Emigration Creek, rescues me from the placelessness of the sky.
Crossings (Over the Mississippi approx. 1:30. The times have gotten slippery as we cross time zones)
It can be dangerous on the bridge. It can be slippery. Here might be speeding long-boarders. Below may be monsters. There might be fascinating or challenging conversations. Bridges are the steps between legend and fact. Flying over the Mississippi is easy. Crossing a creek can be hard.
Curves. (Somewhere over the Gulf Coast, 3:21pm)
Finally a break in the clouds and the Gulf Coast is revealed. I’m a Westerner and coastlines remain elaborate mysteries. Tides freak me out. Once, on a road trip from Seattle to LA we stopped late at night on a beach in Oregon. It was unknown and impossible dark. Cold. Loud. Each step in the sand brought uncertainty and the chance of wet feet. The ocean at night, Odysseus’ “wine dark sea” contains enough questions to sink a ship. My parter loves swimming in lakes. They are here home. I love playing in the ocean, in rivers, because they push back. They scare me. Their questions scare me.
So much green. So much water. So much work to put water in its place. Florida is always flat. It is the opposite of Utah. Today it is also hot, and moderately humid. I hear it is snowing in the Wasatch. Frozen water that will melt and flow through the creek. Here in Florida, where it it hot, humid, and flat, and a long ways away from our creek, It feels necessary to have a conversation about how we inhabit a place. We can tell stories, explore ideas, link the legend and the fact, or relate what we know about a place. It also means we can learn lessons about other places, about other ways of inhabiting nature. Being grounded in a place doesn’t mean being tied to it. On Monday, if the weather behaves, I’ll join a friend and watch a rocket start a 10 month trip to Mars. He hopes to learn about the Martian atmosphere. I hope his questions scare me. I can’t wait to hear what he finds and to think about how that will help me inhabit my place at Westminster, in Sugarhouse, Salt Lake City, Utah, the West, and the world. Indeed, Dale would want me to include the solar system and beyond.